Tension in Our Music Ministry: Can It Unite Us?

Not long ago, I led a study of Charles Wesley’s hymns with a group of older adults. Despite their interest and attentiveness, there was pain in the room. One of the class members spoke up. “My son said to me, ‘Dad, the music at your church is boring and awful. You should come to my church so you can really worship.’” I asked whether this had happened to anyone else in the room. Of the eighty people in the class, over half raised their hands. Since I was to be with the class for three weeks, I decided that our remaining time should be spent dealing with the real pain and sense of disorientation being felt by this group of older Christians.

This kind of tension is all too universal. Some traditionally trained musicians have felt a similar pain when the music they love and to which they have devoted their professional lives is quickly discounted. And people who are working hard to forge musical traditions in contemporary idioms often have their work marginalized by traditionally trained musicians and insensitive clergy.

A few months later, I was consulting with a very traditional church that was feeling pressured by the exponential growth of another church in the area, leaving the leaders to wonder whether all the young adults would leave in order to “get what they wanted” down the street. The growing church bills itself as having “high-energy” music. There was tension in the room as we started our work.

I asked the leadership group to list the best and worst aspects of such things as the use of screens in worship and singing praise and worship choruses. The leaders spoke with deep insight about the positive and negative aspects of each one. Speaking of praise and worship choruses, the classically trained organist said, “Everyone needs some Zen.” He was using the word Zen not to suggest Christians adopt Buddhist meditative practice, but to describe one of the positive values of praise and worship music: its ability to create community in a given moment, to unite worshipers in a common affirmation of the goodness of God. This was an “authorizing” comment, given that most in the room expected him to rip praise and worship music apart.

I’ve got two questions regarding the tension in those two rooms. First, are our expectations derailing some essential conversation? Second, can such tension in the life of the church be purposeful and constructive?

The words standards and entertainment are often invoked within the liturgical/musical community in the church as a way of avoiding serious discussion. They keep us from the kind of dialogue and engagement that would be transforming for our communities. There will be tension if we decide to really engage each other about these words. But I believe it is a godly exercise.

What About Standards?

“We have to maintain standards.” This is a bona fide conversation stopper. Of course there is a need for the thoughtful creation, vigilant maintenance, and skilled communication of theological and aesthetic standards. Perhaps a better approach is, “Let’s review our grounding in God, then let’s ask whether our music matches our convictions.” The issue is who is at the table for this discussion. Since God’s transforming love and power can be experienced within a broad variety of aesthetics, our worship life is diluted and God’s ability to work in diverse ways is shortchanged if we don’t listen to everyone at the worship planning table.

Too often when we set out to create standards, we divorce music and theology. The conversation then degenerates into an argument over what makes good music, or even into a marketing debate (“More people like X than Y, so we ought to do X”). Instead of asking, “What do they like?” or “What will they sing?” or “What can we teach them?” perhaps we should ask, “What must we sing in order to be the church God is calling us to be?” I don’t pretend that’s a simple question that can be solved in a two-hour meeting. But I do think that working together to discern God’s call and claim on the church is the central work of the church. The more clarity there is about the call and claim of God upon the ministry of a local church, the more worship planning is devoted to the service of that call, and the less it is devoted to which style “wins.”

Entertainment Versus Encounter

“It’s nothing but entertainment.” Here is another conversation stopper. In a media-driven culture, we desperately need to distinguish between entertainment and encounter. Entertainment seeks to distract our attention. At its best, it transports us emotionally to a different place so that we may feel refreshment, relief, or renewal. It can remind us of cherished people and moments. When it provokes laughter or tears, it can clearly be therapeutic. But when it presents destruction and abuse as normative or when its only purpose is to make us obedient consumers, it can be demonic.

Unlike entertainment, encounter seeks to focus our attention. One of my favorite biblical encounters is on the Mount of Transfiguration. Having dealt with Peter’s wild unpredictability, especially as portrayed in Matthew’s gospel (ch. 16), Jesus takes the semi-clueless Peter and the sons of Zebedee to the mountaintop for a dramatic encounter that focuses Peter’s attention on who Jesus really is. Encounter underscores reality rather than substituting fantasy or illusion. Encounter provides sobriety and insight. Encounter is sometimes shocking, often confusing, and occasionally frightening. Encounter can be harmful if the creator of an encounter intends to shock or frighten people just for amusement, or meddles with peoples’ emotions capriciously.

The realms of entertainment and encounter are not mutually exclusive. The positive values of entertainment (refreshment, relief, renewal) and the positive values of encounter (sobriety, insight) are certainly therapeutic cousins. Because today’s worshipers live in the intersection between these realities, we must take both seriously. While we must never allow fantasy to supplant reality in our worship, neither must we assume that all entertainment values are demonic.

Constructive Tension?

Our parishioners know more about these intersecting realms than we acknowledge. It’s time to engage God’s people in meaningful conversations about what they know. It’s time to invite them into these tensions, secure in the knowledge that God is in the tensions, working for good.

In the first congregation mentioned above, the pain of the older adults will grow into destructive defensiveness if they are not given the opportunity to claim the power of the music they love. For the sake of their own spiritual vitality, they must not be allowed to slip into the “I like it because I like it” posture. The same is true for the young adults and teenagers of the congregation. In our culture of personal entertainment, in which headphones are a symbol of our increasing alienation from each other, getting people talking to each other about the power of music is truly countercultural.

What if the leaders of that church were to plan dinner gatherings of six to eight people across generational lines, assigning each person to tell a story of one particular worship service that he or she will never forget? What role did music play? What if each person were asked to speak about his or her three favorite hymns, songs, or choruses? Recordings of participants’ favorite music, if available, could also be a part of the evening. The guiding inquiry of the evening would be: Tell us what happens when you sing this music or listen to it. How do you feel? What do you learn about yourself and God? As far as you are aware, does it make you want to do anything?

What are the possible benefits?

  • Stronger relationships among older and younger members.
  • Increased awareness of the vastness of “church music.”
  • Increased awareness that some place more value on music’s role in teaching the faith while others place more value on music’s role in creating community.

In the second congregation, much of the tension came from captivity to the unknown. I asked how many of the leaders had visited the rapidly growing church. Not a single person had attended a service there. I suggested that they send several leaders to attend worship, hoping that such delegations would return with a keener appreciation for the things that their own church did well, and with a deeper resolve to strive for their own distinctive excellence, rather than following the questionable formula, Let’s do what they do, so we will grow too.

Each congregation was captive to a cultural demon. In the first case, the demon was, “I like it because I like it, and worship is about what I like.” In the second, it was, “We need to do it the way they do it.” In their own ways, each congregation had stopped asking the question, “What must we sing (or say, or pray, or do) to be the church God is calling us to be?” Answering that question will certainly bring tension to a congregation. But it’s the kind of tension that can lead to liberating joy.



Instead of asking, “What do they like?” or “What will they sing?” or “What can we teach them?”
perhaps we should ask, “What must we sing in order to be the church God is calling us to be?”

Reformed Worship 66 © December 2002, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.